I often tell parents that I believe children are like water. Water will extend to the outer edges of whatever container into which it is poured. Water needs firm boundaries, and without it, it becomes an uncontrolled mess. Often, parents believe they are doing their child a favor by allowing the bending of, or the inconsistent enforcement of the rules in place in the home. What many parents don’t understand is that they are actually creating an uncertain world for the child. This will lead to the child pushing boundaries and not following rules. Kids, like water, will push to the absolute edge of what is allowed, but it is up to the parent whether that child continues to push past that point. Also, uncertainty and lack of consistency can create an anxious child who is unsure where his boundaries lie within his world. Kids need boundaries and consistency in order to feel safe.
Love your boys
Boys should be tough! Boys don’t cry! Boys don’t talk about their feelings. Our culture teaches young men that they will be valued for their toughness. Many parents, especially fathers, feel it is their duty to toughen up their boys in order to prevent them from being thought of as soft or weak. They don’t give the same affection, or freedom to feel, to their boys as they do to their girls. Those parents are wrong. Boys need all the same love and emotional freedom that girls do, and without it, their psychological development will be incomplete. So many of those “toughened up” boys grow up to be insecure men who are unable to exist peacefully and productively in this world. Jails and prisons are full of them. Loving your boys teaches them that they are worthy of giving and receiving love themselves. And that is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.
The anxious child
As adults, it can be difficult to remember the anxiety we felt as children. Even if we struggle with anxiety as adults, it is most certainly a different type of anxiety than we experienced as children. We may no longer fear the darkness. We may no longer believe in monsters or that aliens will come and get us. But we now know the fear of finances, aging, finding the right career, managing relationships, and so many other “adult” concerns. So how can we use our experiences and understanding of anxiety to support and love our children when they feel fear? How do we avoid letting the frustration of a child who can’t sleep turn from compassion to anger? I guess it helps to remember that no child chooses to feel afraid. Validate your child’s feelings and teach them to regulate their own emotions with deep breathing and positive imagery. And when we do feel ourselves move from compassion to anger, we should try those strategies on ourselves as well.
Embracing the new normal
For most people, the only guarantee in life is that it keeps changing. Not only do we go through phases internally as we age, but we also change jobs, add children (who also go through those phases), and deal with the ups and downs of finance, politics, loss, and other life events. It is rare for things to stay the same for too long, and when they do, that can present challenges of its own. The only way to stay happy, and sane, is to embrace the idea that life is going to change. Clinging to the way things used to be is a sure fire way to suck the happiness out of life and miss out on the wonders of change. So, today and every day, let go of your attachment to the way things used to be, and embrace your new normal. Embrace the beauty and novelty. Embrace the love and excitement. And when things are stressful, remember that tomorrow is sure to be different, and embrace that as well.
Get over it!
Suck it up! Snap out of it! Shake it off! Get over it! These are things that people say, or think about saying to a person who is dealing with feelings of anxiety or depression. Anyone who would think of saying these things clearly has never felt the overwhelming weight of these ominous emotions. When a person is experiencing anxiety or depression, often their mind gets stuck in negative places like a car tire stuck in the mud. It spins and spins while only sinking deeper, and then the fear kicks in with the thought of, “is this just how it’s going to be forever?” An effective strategy for people who are experiencing these emotions is to remember that experiences and emotions don’t last forever. In a similar way that night cycles into day, negative emotions usually run in cycles as well. Work to identify the areas of your life that need attention and set attainable goals to make changes where needed. Work to quiet the inner critic by focusing on the things for which you are grateful. And above all, treat yourself with kindness and compassion as you wait for the sun in your life to rise again.
Avoidance, Tolerance, or Violence?
One of the most gut wrenching thoughts for any parent is to think about their child being intimidated, threatened or bullied by another child. Most parents realize they cannot always be there to protect their child and that their child must learn how to handle difficult situations out in the world. But what advice is actually appropriate to give a child about how to handle a bully? We tell kids they should ignore the bully, they should forcefully say stop, or they should walk away. But what if these strategies don’t work? We can say they should tell a teacher but we know that usually only makes things worse. We can say they should tell us, and as parents we will meet with the parents of the bully, but that also is likely to make things worse. And, many bullies are simply modeling behavior they see at home so there’s that. We can tell them they should punch the bully in the nose, but then we are teaching our children to solve problems with violence. So, how do we protect our kids from those who need to put others down, or hurt others in order to deal with their own feelings of inadequacy?
The word “recovery” gets thrown around a lot in the world of substance abuse treatment and 12-step meetings, and I’ve never really cared for it. The word recovery implies that a return to a “normal state of mind” or a “healing” is possible. I’ve never met an addict who has healed or recovered. I’ve met plenty of addicts who have learned how to manage their impulsive thoughts and resist temptations. I’ve met addicts who have uncovered the psychological origins of their addictive behavior and found the courage to work through those issues in healthy ways. I’ve met addicts who have been sober for 20 years, but again, I’ve never met an addict who has healed or recovered. I’ve never met an alcoholic who has learned to drink, and think about drinking, in non-addictive ways. To be in the process of recovery leads one to think there will be a time when they will have recovered. I believe once those pleasure pathways have been stimulated, the brain of the addict has been changed forever.
Reinforce the positive or punish the negative?
Let’s start with the most basic fact of parenthood, children need guidance, and they are going to do things they are not supposed to do and not do things they are supposed to do. Social science researchers have been studying this issue for quite some time and it has been clearly demonstrated through that research that punishment doesn’t work and positive reinforcement does. So knowing this, why does it still feel so difficult sometimes to reward behaviors we expect rather than punishing behaviors we find unacceptable?
One big influence for me, and others of my generation, is that punishment was a part of our childhood and most of us believe it helped to keep us in line. Another big influence is ego. Ego says, “Why should I reward you for telling the truth when you know that lying is wrong?” But how can we ignore the research that so clearly demonstrates that punishment is not the best way to change behavior? And what about the psychological impact of punishment on our children?
It is my personal belief that there must be room for both philosophies. Positive reinforcement should be the goal but I also believe there are some behaviors that need to be punished. The challenge is to know when to apply each philosophy. As a parent who wants the best for his children, I have to accept that if I want to help my child correct unacceptable behavior, I will have more success with a philosophy of positive reinforcement than one of punishment. But, I must also accept that I am not a perfect parent, and there will be times I will feel the need to punish. I choose to believe that how I process my decision with my child is more important than the decision itself.
Taking the bait:
Relationships are filled with opportunities to take the bait and argue, or to resist and let the moment pass. Sometimes, letting the moment pass can feel like a very difficult decision, but if couples fought over every disagreement, bad mood, or stressful situation, there would be constant conflict, and that’s not good for anyone. Finding the balance between having the difficult discussions that need to happen and letting the ones that don’t need to happen pass is one of the biggest, yet most important challenges that exist in relationships. Helpful questions to ask yourself at these times are: Is the tension here about me, or is my partner tense because of something else? Is this something that we actually agree on, but are somehow miscommunicating? Is this issue worth adding stress to both of our lives? If you decide that it isn’t worth fighting then take a deep breath, have a seat and let the moment pass. If you decide it is worth discussing, still sit down (adrenaline is toxic to conversations) and do your best to stay on the issue at hand and do so in a respectful way. Also, remember that you love your partner and converse accordingly.
Co-parenting after breaking up:
Choosing to end a relationship with someone with whom you have made a child can be quite a complicated process. Not only must you navigate issues associated with any breakup, but now there are custodial issues, financial issues, and issues related to how each parent will parent the child. Furthermore, one of the biggest benefits of ending a relationship is not having to continue to interact with your ex, but now that is off the table as well. Sadly, it is not uncommon in these situations for one person to use the child to negatively affect the other. Parents who choose to use a child to deliver messages or to spy will create a confusing and stressful situation for that child. Using your child as a weapon may hurt your ex, but it will hurt your child more and will lead to emotional issues for your child. Remember the wise words that one must love their children more than they hate their ex. Also, never underestimate the value of just not being a jerk.